Aug 16, 2023
Outside Ukraine, a divisive blame-game over a potentially stagnant, frozen Ukraine battlefield is underway. Progress on the Ukraine battlefield is certainly slow, but rather than fret—a Ukrainian breakthrough may yet happen this year—Ukraine’s allies can shift from attempting to pre-empt criticism and back-biting, to, instead, openly celebrate Ukraine’s martial accomplishments.
In aggregate, Ukraine’s battlefield achievements are incredible. It might be easy to criticize Ukraine for failing to conduct a modern and proper “combined arms” fight on the battlefield, unable to meld every battlefield tool into an orchestrated concert of destruction. But the fact that Ukraine is fighting, advancing, and preparing the ground for a breakthrough later in the Fall—mirroring Germany’s race for the Azov Sea and Crimea in late September 1941—is simply an incredible feat of arms.
Ukraine Has Succeeded With A Small Ground Fighting Force:
Ukraine has waged a fight with a comparatively tiny army. According to the latest annual Military Balance report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ukraine only has around 333,000 active-duty front line troops. Those soldiers are backed by 350,000 less capable territorial defense soldiers and 250,000 in police and security work. Those, in turn, are backed by 400,000 reservists.
To amateurs, this may seem like a lot. It isn’t.
Ukraine’s front-line troops are spread awfully thin, stuck with holding a daunting 600-mile frontline in Ukraine, where they face prepared Russian defenses. And that’s just where the heavy fighting is. Security demands on Ukraine’s long frontier—bordering Russia to the east and a hostile Belarus to the north—gobble up even more troops.
Put another way, in 1991, the America allocated some 697,000 U.S. troops to participate as part of a coalition of almost one million soldiers, to expel Iraq’s creaky army from 6,880 square miles of Kuwait. Right now, Ukraine’s far-smaller force is facing the far more daunting task of kicking Russia, a former superpower, out of some 62,000 square miles of far more defensible territory.
Ukraine is not fretting over the grim statistics. Right now, the country is waging a successful offensive. But the task ahead will be monumental. Even if Ukraine devoted every single active-duty Ukrainian trooper to a proper combined-arms attack, Ukraine’s cadre of about 333,000 “front line” troops will be hard-pressed to progress.
The U.S. would never rush to fight under such odds.
In the two-month long 1944 battle of Normandy, the Allies, after the D-Day landings, concentrated almost 1.5 million troops into fifty-mile front line before the allied troops could overcome ad-hoc German defenses and break out into the wider French countryside. That break out, coming with the advantage of full air superiority, was won cost of more than 200,000 casualties.
Fortified defense lines are tough to break by a feat of arms alone. In the last two years of the Korean War, after the Korean battle front stabilized around the 38th parallel, thousands fought—and thousands died—to win a just few meters of ground. If Ukraine can break through later this Fall, sweeping through to the Azov, and potentially taking Crimea, Ukraine will have done something epic—and it will have dramatically reduced the battle front.
Ukraine’s Fighting Force Is Winning With Little Western Training:
Adding to the challenge, the Ukrainian Army is waging an offensive while still training up. According to reporting by PBS, some 41,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained by the West. Again, this might sound great to an observer, but, unfortunately, training is relative. In total, a small fraction of Ukraine’s front-line ground forces received Western training, and only a fraction of these forces got anything more than a single five-week infantry training course.
That’s not much.
To compare, it takes thirteen weeks to transform raw U.S. recruits unto basic Marine Corps rifleman. The U.S. Army needs ten weeks. By now, most front-line Ukrainian troops aren’t raw, but they do need training standardization, and then, on top of basic skills, they could, before heading off to undertake one of the more daunting tasks ever asked of ground troops, benefit from a whole lot of additional specialized breaching and assault training. In Normandy, days before the 1944 breakout, units were off the front lines and busy training on how to best beat hedgerow country defenses.
Compounding the challenge, Ukraine’s allies have been slow to realize that training outcomes are a moving target. Ukraine knows artillery and has been modernizing their artillery forces since 2014. Training has gone well. France, for example, only needed to train a handful of Ukrainian solders to make the French-built CAESAR self-propelled howitzer a battlefield success.
In turn, Ukraine’s experiences with France’s highly-regarded AMX-10 RC armored car hasn’t gone nearly as well. French training was likely a hurried affair, with the vehicle donations coming as France was facing criticism over its limited training commitments. Within four months, the first of these handy “mini-tanks” were in operating Ukraine, and several were promptly lost. These light armored vehicles are specialized tools, and it takes time and training for a military steeped in Warsaw Pact-era tactics to change.
Ukraine’s Fighting Force On Offensive Despite A Logistical Nightmare:
Ukraine is also mired in something of a logistical bind. As a force, it is being asked to transfer from Soviet era equipment to a grab-bag of Western gear. In a calmer Europe, the shift from Warsaw Pact to NATO weapons took decades. Ukraine is transforming virtually overnight, all while under fire, and all while Europe sends in dribs and drabs of “test articles” for Ukraine to operate under real-world combat conditions.
The Ukrainian arsenal is mind-boggling. Right now, no other military in the world operates such a diverse array of Soviet-era, captured Russian and Western gear. The mere task of getting the right ammunition to the right gun at the right time is an incredible challenge. Simply trying to maintain all the various fighting platforms under battlefield conditions is enough to give the West’s most seasoned logisticians post-traumatic stress disorder, and yet, Ukraine is getting their grab-bag Army into action far faster than any analyst might expect.
In aggregate, it is a heck of an achievement, and Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to fight and win deserve respect—if not a measure of awe. Rather than complain, fretting about Ukraine’s style of fighting, Ukraine’s friends might do well to celebrate Ukraine’s achievements to date. By putting more energy into helping Ukraine win, standardizing equipment, improving Ukraine training capabilities, increasing the lethality of Ukraine’s modest forces, and, in the end, breaking Moscow’s ability to support fighters at the front, Ukraine’s friends can help Ukraine towards a favorable battlefield outcome.